Climate change is bringing more droughts, heat waves and powerful rainstorms, shifts that will require governments to change how they cope with natural disasters to protect human lives and the world economy, a new U.N. report says.
The 592-page analysis by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released yesterday, also makes clear the uneven toll extracted by extreme weather, because its effects can be magnified by a lack of resources to plan for disasters and cope with their aftermath.
Between 1970 and 2008, the report says, more than 95 percent of deaths caused by natural disasters occurred in developing countries, while the largest economic losses from climate extremes have been recorded in richer, developed nations.
But no region of the globe will remain unaffected by changing weather patterns, the IPCC report says.
"One of the striking things, when you look at the report, is that there is disaster risk almost everywhere," said Christopher Field, a Stanford University professor who led the IPCC's working group on climate change impacts. "A focus on disaster risk and a focus on reducing disaster risk should be a priority in every country in every region."
That includes the United States, which suffered $55 billion in disaster-related damage last year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That includes 14 extreme weather events that each caused more than $1 billion of damage.
"The assessment has clearly shown that the U.S. is not an exception to the global changes that we see in projecting extreme events into the future," said Thomas Stocker of the University of Bern, co-chairman of the IPCC's physical science working group.
Some areas may become uninhabitable
Those changes include "substantial warming" through the end of the century, with longer, stronger and more frequent heat waves over most of the Earth's land area, more frequent heavy rainfall events, and more intense and longer droughts in large swaths of Europe and Africa.
Some of the shifts are already evident, the report says, including an overall dip in the number of cold days and nights and a rising number of warm days and nights since the middle of the last century.
But the effects of those changes are influenced by different communities' ability to adapt, said IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri.
"There are huge disparities in terms of the impacts of very similar events and disasters in different parts of the world."
Some areas may be rendered uninhabitable by changing patterns of extreme weather, says the new report, which identifies small island states and large coastal cities threatened by sea level rise as likely examples.
"When you look around the world, there are lots of places that are marginal for one reason or another," Field said. "Climate change can impose additional stresses on top of the stresses that are already occurring, and the indications are that for areas that are kind of close to the border line, additional stresses might make them uninhabitable."
'Achingly difficult' choices ahead
For Mumbai, India, vulnerability comes from its location on the Arabian Sea coast, where the mega-city has spread into areas that were once marshland. But it is magnified by "development failures" small and large -- from trash that clogs many of the city's storm drains to the extreme poverty that has given rise to sprawling slums, the new report says.
An extreme rainstorm that hit Mumbai in July 2005 killed more than 1,000 people, mostly slum residents, and disrupted the city's water, sewer, road, rail, power, air transportation and telecommunications systems, the report notes.
The city is one of several listed in the report as the largest, by population, at risk of future flooding, along with Kolkata, India; Dhaka, Bangladesh; Guangzhou and Shanghai, China; Bangkok; Rangoon, Myanmar; Miami; and Ho Chi Minh City and Hai Phòng, Vietnam.
Warnings about the fate of Mumbai's dense, low-lying slums in a planet with more extreme weather hint at the hard choices the world will face as the climate changes, experts said yesterday.
"As we look toward the future, probably the most difficult decisions are going to involve whether there should be a large-scale migration or mobilization of communities," Field said. "The decision about whether or not to move is achingly difficult, and I think it's one the world community is going to have face with increasing frequency in the future."
The IPCC released a summary of the new report in November, but the full report was not released until yesterday. The science panel also plans to release earlier drafts of the report, plus comments by scientific and government reviewers and the responses from IPCC authors.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500